I recently had the privilege of meeting British-Nigerian writer and professor of literature Sarah Ladipo Manyika at an African literature festival, called “Writing in Migration,” which took place in Berlin. The first of its kind, its mission was to promote African writers from the continent, as well as from the German-speaking diaspora. A majority of the authors attending WIM were published by the rapidly expanding Nigerian press called Cassava Republic. The organizers highlighted that this was “the first literary festival with and by African writers in Berlin,” and its inaugural edition focused on the themes of transnationalism and migration.
A citizen of the world, Sarah Ladipo Manyika lives in San Francisco and Harare. She was born in Nigeria and lived successively in the U.K., Kenya, Senegal and France. She is the author of two novels published by Cassava Republic, and of numerous short stories and essays. We took a pleasant walk through the center of Berlin and she spoke about her identity as a writer, her work as a wordsmith and about the many intriguing and fascinating characters in her novels. Manyika has made some unusual publishing choices and she offered incisive insights into the differences between African publishing houses and those in the Global North. The interview took place on April 28, 2018.
Raphaël Thierry: The slogan of the festival is “People on the Move and African Writers.” What does it say to you?
Sarah Ladipo Manyika: I think the topic of migration is a topical one. Not just for Africans, but for everyone, really. We live in an increasingly global world, and as writers we are influenced by the world in which we live. The topic of migration is broad and it’s a good umbrella topic under which to gather artists and writers.
RT: This event claims to be the “first African literature festival in Berlin."
SLM: I am surprised, to be honest with you! I was surprised it was the first, and especially in a place like Berlin, which appears so international.
RT: For readers that do not know you already: Your second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, has just been translated into French by Delcourt. But writing novels is not all you do. You seem like a very multi-faceted person, looking at your different activities. How would you define yourself?
SLM: (Laughs) Yes, it’s always interesting when you ask a person to define themselves: Do we define ourselves according to where we live? According to the people we are attached to? According to what we do? According to our age? But maybe this is being overly philosophical and overly complicated. One way to describe myself is as someone that grew up in West Africa and East Africa. My father is Nigerian, my mother is British and so my roots are definitely very much grounded in West Africa, where I spent the formative years of my life. But at the same time, as you alluded to, I’ve had the privilege of living in other countries, and to have travelled quite a lot. So I lived in Kenya, I lived in France, I now live in the United States. I have a child and he is American.
So my sense of home and of “where I belong” is quite disparate, and my roots are in different places. And you know, I think that I have reached a point in my life where I never feel 100% anything. I am not 100% Nigerian, I am not 100% English, I am not 100% American, but that’s fine. I think that as an artist, sometimes having that outside perspective, not completely fitting in, always observing, has been useful. And let me add one more thing. Because I come from many different places, and have had the privilege of living in different places, I am always excited when I see people being brought together from different backgrounds, from different places, and I am not just talking about nationality. I love making interesting connections and bringing people together. I think that this is another part of me that is quite essential to who I am.
RT: In another interview, you said something quite interesting: “I’m an African writer and a British writer and an American writer and a global writer and a female writer and a black writer and a serious writer and a silly writer…”
SLM: Yeah, I mean I think this is how I see myself, but I think the question of identity is complicated, because I am very well aware that some people will see me primarily as a female writer, some people maybe see me primarily as a Nigerian writer… And that is fine! I do not define the way others see me. But what I can say is that I do not see myself as just one thing. I do not think anyone is just one thing. But I am cognizant of the fact that publishing and being a published writer means that one is a part of the business of selling books. Categories are often created and used to facilitate the sale of books.
RT: If I may, I would like now to focus on your second novel. What an interesting title: Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun! You had explained that it comes from a poem written by Mary Ruefle, if I’m right. Could you tell me a little more?
SLM: Well, I think I am always drawn to titles that leave room for the imagination and allow a reader to think and reflect. I was talking to a poet the other day and this poet described the titles of poems as being like hats, “comme un chapeau,” and indeed when I read poetry, the titles are just as important as the poems themselves. So in my mind, when it comes to entitling a novel, I don’t just want a title for title’s sake, and nor do I want the title to summarize what the book is about. I look for a title that is beautiful and that makes people think. While I was finishing Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, I happened to be reading poetry. I was reading some of Mary Ruefle’s poetry at that time and the words of my title are taken from her poem “Donkey On.” On the most basic word level, I was drawn to her interesting juxtaposition of words. I loved the many meanings to mule, I love sunshine, and I like ice cream. So on the most basic word level, these words spoke to me, but what the image evoked was also important. The image conjured up something bittersweet—when you take ice cream to the sun it will very quickly melt. So bitter-sweetness, and the brevity of life, these evocations seemed appropriate for the book I’d written. But of course, it took me about a month to memorize my own title!
RT: How should I describe your novel? Let me try: The people, story and history surrounding retired professor Morayo Da Silva (and widow of a diplomat), staring at the world, past and present, from her old apartment, filled with books, in San Francisco. Does it sound right?
SLM: Yes, it's essentially the story of Morayo Da Silva — it’s the story of her life and her friends around her. I see this as a story that speaks to aging, to friendship, and desire. And I guess in some ways (although it feels funny for me to be saying this), I think it is something of a philosophical story as well. It is not a plot-heavy story; it is quite a simple plot with its focus on the life of an older woman—an older black woman. As I grow older, I become more interested in older people and I appreciate them more. As I was not finding many stories and fictions of older women, and certainly not of black older women, I found myself drawn to writing such a story. I often cite Toni Morrison, who says that if you cannot find a story you want to read, then write it. I was driven to write a story not only about an older woman for the sake of writing about an older character, but there were many facets of on older woman’s life, including sensuality, that I was keen to include. There are a lot of stories about older men - take Philip Roth, for example, or Ian McEwan, who write about older men who are still quite vital and sensual and have desire. But there are fewer stories about older women. Older women are often depicted as “little old ladies” with nothing sexual or sensual about them. But in real life I kept meeting older women who were showing me the opposite of this stereotype - women dressing up, putting on lipstick, women with boyfriends, etc. and I wanted to portray that. It’s almost as if there is a stigma to saying that a woman who is older than, let’s say forty, can be sensual. But they are! We are! So that is just one facet that I wanted to highlight. And I was also very interested in the way identity works: the way that we see ourselves. I really wanted the reader to see the way that Morayo sees herself, projects herself, and the way that other people see her: this business of seeing self and being seen by others.
RT: You often quote Toni Morrison as an influence. You even had a long conversation with her in 2017…
SLM: Yes! Toni Morrison is an influence and such an inspiration. First, I am inspired by how she has written a whole body of work around African Americans and the legacy of slavery in a way that no one else has done. I also love the way that she writes for the ear. And in terms of influence, in this last book I was really trying to capture the way that people speak and so much so that I almost feel that my book is better as an audio-book than a written one, maybe! So Morrison has influenced me in that way, and I have immense respect for what she has done. It was amazing to meet her.
RT: About Toni Morrison, you were mentioning her attention on “names and naming."
SLM: Yes, I love her characters’ names - so often surprising and interesting. “Word-work is sublime,” she says in her Nobel Prize lecture, and certainly her word-work is. A lot of thought goes into the names she uses. Within African American culture, and many African cultures, names really matter. So for example, the name that I gave to my protagonist in Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is Morayo which, in Yoruba, means “I see joy.” So there are a lot of little things in the book that maybe some people will know and find some resonance with that others may not know. I gave Morayo the name “I see joy” for a reason. This is character who tries to live life with joy.
RT: By reading your book, I cannot help but think of Paul Auster and his character Auggie Wren…
SLM: Well, I am flattered to be compared to a writer like Paul Auster! I have enjoyed Auster’s work, and I have also been critical of some of his work. In an essay that I wrote called “Coming of Age in the Time of the Hoodie,” I question, for example, Auster’s unequivocally glowing preface to Joe Brainard’s classic I Remember. But Paul Auster’s book Winter Journal was one of his books that I found particularly interesting. I was captivated by the way in which he describes a life via descriptions of the body. So I took my own fascination and gave it to the character of Morayo. Some of the books that Morayo reads are also books that I read and enjoy but not all. There are moments in the book that could be read as an homage to some of the writers that have influenced me and I have enjoyed, but more often than not, the homage is my character’s homage to her friends who live on her bookshelves.
RT: Your novel opens with a quotation from Ritesh Joginder Batra: “I think we forget things if we have no one to tell them to.” Tell me about this choice.
SLM: Have you seen his film The Lunchbox?
RT: Absolutely. This is one of my beloved movies!
SLM: Actually, it is also for me. That film embodies some of the essence of what I attempt to do in the book. There is sensuality, love, the passage of time, reflections on mortality and an older character at its heart. All of these elements are what I was mulling over and trying to write. This is a beautiful film. Not plot-heavy, but rather one that focuses on character. By starting the book with a quote from the film, I was also signaling to the reader that my inspiration comes from many art forms. Yes, I am inspired by books, but I am equally inspired by films, music, and drama, as well as by those snippets of conversation that I might hear by walking down a street… You know? This is life, in all its beautifulness and ugliness and all of this is a part of my “tableau”—the material from which I draw.
RT: The very first paragraph of your novel deals with our common equality within tragedies. This is a striking choice to start a story!
SLM: Yes. I do not know if this is an answer to your question, but last night, I was thinking about how often people will say that “all writing is about a journey,” or “all writing is about love.” For my part, I think all writing is ultimately about mortality. There is a bitter-sweetness in mortality, and yet, as humans, we prefer not to think about our mortality. I see the bitter-sweetness in enjoying life (as and when we have it), while recognizing its brevity.
RT: You also close this paragraph by reminding the reader that books are the only survivors from catastrophes…
SLM: Was it Hampâté Bâ that said, “When an old person dies, a library is gone”? The other thing I should say about the book is that I was really deep into it before the American Presidential election of 2016. And to be honest, I was not surprised that Trump won, and I wrote about this. I could see the divisions in society, and I could see how afraid some people were of becoming a minority white population, afraid of outsiders, afraid of immigrants. I think this is a thread in my book - not a dogmatic thread, but I really wanted to paint the diversity of our world without fear. And that diversity is on every level, not only as it pertains to nationality. To come back to the point you made earlier, we are all human at the end of the day: We all live and we all die. It is as simple as that. We finally all die. And that is the one thing that unites all of us. Perhaps if we were to focus more on the fact that we are all here for such a brief time, maybe that would help us to get along better. It might also help us have a little more empathy, and particularly more empathy for people who are old. I think that I am always troubled by the way, around the world but particularly in the so-called West, we see older people as a burden with little or nothing to offer society.
RT: In your writings, the world often seems to be “popping out” from a single place or core: Morayo’s apartment or Tayo’s relationship (in your first novel In Dependence)…
SLM: It is an interesting observation, and I think that is certainly true for Like a Mule, and it is true for some of the short stories that I have written, but not all. I think In Dependence is actually quite a different book. The world pops up because the characters actually travel, and you go on the journey with them. With regards to the world in which Like a Mule is written: we only see a short period of time but we get quite a good impression of the years that have come before, whereas In Dependence is a novel that spans a few decades, and we travel with one of the main characters from Nigeria to England. And with the other main character we travel from Oxford, England to Dakar, Senegal and back again. The two books are different, but I think that what you said still holds true for some of my other writings, including some short stories.
RT: Both your novels were published by Cassava Republic Press, which is a now famous Nigerian publishing press. However, your first novel, In Dependence, was published by the British publisher Legend Press. Could you tell me more about these 10 years of partnership with a Nigerian publishing house?
SLM: When I published In Dependence, it was very important for me that the book came out quickly in Nigeria. As you know, much of the book is set in Nigeria. Cassava Republic Press was a young press at that time, but now, speaking about this festival, it is so fantastic to see how many authors Cassava publishes and how many times you hear their name mentioned! Many authors at this festival including Elnathan John, Leye Adenle, Olumide Popoola, Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Chika Unigwe are Cassava Republic Press authors. So I was really excited to publish in Nigeria. I had begun to realize over the years – and this is what I wrote about in the article, Why I Chose an African Publisher Over a Western One - that the gatekeepers of so-called “African literature” are not in Africa. They are abroad. And until recently, it has really been Western publishers that have defined what this thing called “African literature” is. One does not have power over defining or presenting different kinds of stories, unless you can be the publisher yourself. For a long time, I have been keen to support African publishers and to support writers who are within Africa. I am someone who gets involved with organizations, whether it’s by sitting on the Boards of arts organizations, by supporting book prizes and/or starting authors’ conversations (we discussed earlier how I enjoy bringing people together). I am always keen to open doors for others where I can and to address inequalities where I can.
I decided with my second book that if a Nigerian-based, or African-based, publishing house was interested in my book, then ideologically I would love to give them world rights because I like the idea of an African publisher being able to sell my rights to Europe, instead of the other way around. I was so excited when Cassava Republic was interested in my book, and it has been wonderful to see them sell the rights to France, to a Spanish publisher, to a Danish publisher, to a German publisher, and more! But for me, it is not only exciting, it is in some way tipping the scales that have hitherto been tipped in only one direction. And it’s also exciting for me because I think that, for so long, the West has embraced the same kind of stories, and there is nothing wrong with these kinds of stories, some of them are fantastic stories! But I am really excited to see the world enriched by a different way of viewing things, and different kinds of stories. So my story is about an older Nigerian woman living as an expatriate in San Francisco. It is a different kind of story; it is not a story about someone who is poor, or who has been in wars, or famines, it is a different kind of story. And my story is just one of many other new types of stories that are being published. I think we need this diversity!
RT: In that same article, you underlined the issue of editorial lines, for example…
SLM: I think we should not just think about readership being primarily in the West. Just to go back to my first book, In Dependence, when I first wrote that book 10 years ago, I sent it out to so many publishers, and many publishers came back to me saying, “We like the story but we don’t feel that a love story will sell.” So I got a lot of rejections… Even the publishers that I published with, when I first approached them, said “we already have a story sets in Africa.” Ah… One! I went back to them a year later and asked: “Well, do you think you could publish it now?” And they said “yes,” so I am not being critical of the publishers, but it is just to show you how people think about these things. And what is so ironic is that, while I was told by so many Western publishers that “we don’t think we can sell this,” ten years later, the Nigerian government adopts it as a book that all university students read and this book has now sold 3 million copies!
RT: I was in Geneva some days ago, where Emma Shercliff, one of Cassava Republic’s publishers, told us about the impressive number of copies that your book has sold. This would be an incredible success anywhere!
SLM: Yes! So this is just to say that a book doesn’t have to sell much in America or Europe to have a huge readership somewhere else.
RT: Still, in Geneva, there was a Malagasy publisher, Johary Ravaloson (Dodo Vole publishing), who claimed: “When published in the North, South writers can reserve their rights to African or Southern publishers.” What do you think of this affirmation?
SLM: Yes, writers can do that if they wish. They also have the option of giving all rights to so-called Southern publishers.
RT: You are speaking about technology: You told me before our discussion that you have recently started being involved within a digital project dedicated to promote literature…
SLM: Indeed. Last year I became the founding Books Editor for Ozy.com. This is an online news site with over 40 million viewers/readers. I took on the job last year because I was excited to be setting up this platform and excited to bring many great new and emerging writers to the attention of a large and ever-growing global audience. I both wrote for the platform and commissioned many writers (several of whom were first time authors and writers of African or of African origin).
RT: Concerning Cassava Republic again, isn’t it something new, or at least quite rare, for an African publishing press to set up offices in the U.S. or U.K.?
SLM: It is new. And it’s exciting.
RT: The “drama question”: what do you think of this interview of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that took place in Paris in January, and the polemical debates which followed?
SLM: From the little that I saw of the interview, I believe that Chimamanda Adichie was asked, “Are there bookshops in Nigeria?” And from Adichie’s reaction, it appears as if the question was asked with an air of superiority, as in, “Do you people even have bookshops in Africa?” However, I do not know if this was exactly the spirit in which this question was asked, or if it was the spirit in which the question was understood. But I think that Adichie’s response was certainly trying to make one thing clear, which was: “Please, don’t be paternalistic,” and “please don’t look down on us, we have had enough of that, this is enough, right?” That said, the fact is that there are not enough bookshops and libraries in many parts of the continent, and for that matter, the future of libraries worldwide is not something we can take for granted. We do want to encourage people to read more and write more, but we don’t need this paternalistic and condescending attitude.
RT: One very last question: You chose to launch Like a Mule in Zimbabwe, in Harare, which is, as far as I know, a hotspot for publishing in Africa (I am thinking about the Indaba for example). Could you explain this choice?
SLM: It’s a very simple response: I happened to be in Zimbabwe at the time. The book first came out in Nigeria, and shortly thereafter in England. But when it came out, I happened to be traveling in Zimbabwe and friends planned a lovely launch, so it was an occasion to have a party, and why not!
Raphaël Thierry is a French scholar and researcher based in Germany. Since 2008, his research has focused on African publishing's relationship to the international book industry. His book Le marché du livre africain et ses dynamiques littéraires : le cas du Cameroun was published by Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux in 2015. He has also co-published a study entitled “Book Donation Programmes for Africa: Time for a Reappraisal?” with Hans Zell in African Research & Documentation in the Journal of SCOLMA. He is currently setting up a project dedicated to analyzing and mapping the publishing structure in Francophone Africa and attends numerous conferences and cultural events where it is possible to defend and broadcast issues on African publishing. Since 2011, Thierry blogs at EditAfrica.